Spring ’20 Volunteer Interviews: Teaching English to Refugees with METAdrasi

Even though the spring ’20 semester ended early due to COVID-19, students still had productive and meaningful volunteer experiences during their time in Athens. CYA has conducted interviews with volunteers from the spring ’20 class, and we will be publishing some of them on the CYA Blog. Passionate about working with refugees in Athens, Jill Robins taught English to unaccompanied minors with METAdrasi.

Do you think you gave back to the community and how? 

My role as a volunteer was to provide one-on-one English lessons to one of the unaccompanied minors living in METAdrasi’s Supported Independent Living Program. To say that I gave back to the Athens community at large feels like I’d be giving myself too much credit – I do feel, however, that I was able to enrich the life of one individual who needed support. The student I worked with spoke no English and no Greek, making the prospect of standard education in Athens daunting and anxiety inducing. By working one-on-one together at his speed and in his own environment, we were able to reduce some of the stress he associates with learning and school. When I came to CYA, I knew I wanted to give back to the Athens refugee community. While my work with METAdrasi was only with one member of this community, I can certainly say that I helped one of the most enthusiastic learners that I have ever met gain confidence in a language that can improve his new life in Greece.

How did volunteering enrich your study abroad experience? 

Volunteering was easily the most rewarding aspect of my CYA experience. METAdrasi gave me the opportunity not only to teach but also to learn. When I came in for my initial meeting about the position, I was surprised when I was told that I would be planning every lesson on my own as I see fit. At first, I really had no clue how they could trust me with so much responsibility. The freedom was daunting for someone who had never taught English before, but they reassured me that I could utilize any resources I needed from their headquarters and that I would settle into the role. Tailoring, and subsequently implementing, lessons to suit my student’s needs each week significantly improved my independence and confidence in my capabilities as a teacher and a learner. Volunteering was something I looked forward to every week, and it’s one of the experiences I miss the most now that I’m home. Being able to connect with someone despite differences in culture, upbringing, and language is one of life’s treasures. I am so thankful that it was something I was able to experience, and it is something I hope to make a consistent part of my life post-CYA.

Jill Robins

What was your favorite moment from volunteering? And the most meaningful? 

It’s so hard to pick just one memory from volunteering to call my favorite. There were moments every session that filled my heart and made me proud to be where I was. One that stands out in particular was when my student’s girlfriend called him from Egypt mid-lesson one day. He was talking with her when, all of a sudden, he passed the phone to me and encouraged me to introduce myself and talk to her. Though we didn’t talk long, it was the look on my student’s face the whole time that hit home with me. He was smiling ear-to-ear watching us get to know each other in English, and that was the moment I knew we had really connected.

One other moment that stands out to me as being incredibly impactful was on the day of our last lesson together. Unfortunately, our last lesson was not intended to be our last – our time together was cut short by COVID-19. As we wrapped up for the day, he asked me if we could add an extra session for the week because he felt that he was improving and wanted to work even more. It broke my heart to tell him that I had classes and wouldn’t be able to fit in another session at that point in the week, and nobody expected that schools would shut down and our homes would go into lockdown shortly after. Even though the memory is a sad one, it means so much to me that he asked me for more lessons. To watch a student go from shying away from school to asking for more learning is really special. To me, it meant that I had instilled confidence in him which can fuel his drive to learn throughout his future. Despite that being the last we saw of each other, I am glad that we at least had the chance to make an impact on each other’s lives.

How did you decide to volunteer? How did CYA help you find the best fit for you? 

I knew I wanted to volunteer as soon as I got my first email from Nadia mentioning the opportunity before we even arrived in Athens. That feeling was solidified when I watched the pre-departure CYA alumni panel and got to hear from students who had volunteered in their semesters abroad. I’m an International Studies and Arabic double major, and immigration/migration is something that I’ve always found interesting. Part of the reason I chose to study abroad in Athens was for its role in hosting so many refugees from the Middle East, especially as the Syrian Civil War unfolds. I was really excited to be presented with the opportunity to work hands-on with this community.

Once I arrived at CYA, Nadia was extremely helpful in guiding us through the process of finding a volunteer experience right off the bat. As soon as I entered her office and told her what I was looking to do, she was able to give me an organization and a person to contact without even thinking. Whenever I had any questions about getting through to the organization, finding a role that suits what I want to do, or anything under the sun about volunteering, Nadia was there to support and guide me. To future CYA-ers looking to volunteer: try to leave enough space in your schedule for volunteering when you register for classes and talk to Nadia as soon as you can! It’s a fantastic experience you won’t get elsewhere!

Do you think volunteering changed your view of Athens? Why or why not?

Volunteering didn’t necessarily change my view of Athens, but it did influence my view of the city. I volunteered in Kypseli, about a half hour drive from Pangrati. On the drive over, I got to see areas and neighborhoods that I hadn’t traveled to or seen thus far as a tourist. As I was walking through Kypseli with the METAdrasi social worker one day, she told me how much she liked the area for how diverse it is. It absolutely was the most diverse part of Athens I had been in, and it was an area I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t volunteered. It opened my eyes to a different Athenian experience than what CYA students see from Pangrati and its next-door neighbors. I’m really thankful that I had the opportunity to see such a different part of the city, and it helped paint a fuller picture in my head of my abroad-home.

How did you balance volunteering with your work for classes? 

I knew I wanted to volunteer in Athens before I arrived in Greece for the semester. That being said, I knew that I should leave room in my schedule so I could build in time to volunteer on the weekdays. I arranged my classes so I only had one class at 5:15pm on Mondays and Wednesdays, which gave me ample time to go wherever and do whatever an organization may need me to. In terms of balancing the work, I fell into a routine pretty quickly. I would usually build the bulk of my lessons over the weekend (either on Sundays or in between travel/activities), and I would prep again before leaving to go to our lesson the day of. With this pretty set routine, I had plenty of time to get my schoolwork done during the weekdays. I’m most productive doing my homework during the morning/daytime (and on the 3rd floor of the Academic Center), so this ended up being what worked for me. Doing schoolwork and staying on top of classes in tandem with volunteering is definitely manageable, I promise!

Why do you think volunteering is important while studying abroad? 

Sometimes when we study abroad we can find ourselves slipping into an insulated bubble with our fellow study abroad students and faculty. Volunteering is an opportunity to break out of that bubble and see a part of your abroad-home that you may not have been able to see otherwise. The experience allows you to learn valuable skills and get a new perspective or story that you can’t learn in a classroom. These out-of-classroom experiences are the ones we often learn the most from and that stay close to our hearts after we’re gone. Personally, I think it’s important to see new places and meet new people that you would not if you were just a tourist scratching the surface of a new city. And if that wasn’t enough, it also gives you a weekly opportunity to make heartwarming memories by giving back to the community.

Will you try to continue volunteering now that you’re back home? 

Definitely! Before my time with METAdrasi and CYA, I had never taught English before. I had volunteered tutoring other school subjects and I had worked with immigrants/refugees, but this experience was my first real blend of the two. I am really grateful that I was given the opportunity to develop my personal and professional skills, and it sparked a fire in me for this kind of work. Teaching English to non-English speakers, particularly refugees/immigrants, is so rewarding for everyone involved. I am definitely looking for opportunities to continue this kind of volunteering experience now that I’m home!

Written by Anna Wichmann